On a gloomy evening in Theiva village, the melody of collective singing escapes the windows of a church. But the song is accompanied by loud unrhythmic drumbeats. A middle-aged woman, dressed in a cardigan and wraparound skirt, is seated in the front row of the church, banging a drum. After a few minutes, when those assembled find it impossible to continue singing their hymns, she is asked to stop. She mutters something under her breath, and keeps quiet for the rest of the service.
The prayers end. The worshippers now read out passages from the Bible. The woman chooses to maintain her silence. She just sits there, aloof, with closed eyes and clasped hands. This continues till the end of the service, when the bespectacled woman leading the sermon finally says ‘Amen’. The clasped hands drop, and her eyes open in excitement at the prospect of saying what she now must. Everyone speaks in unison, but Ng Chhaidy’s voice rises above the gathering’s. “Amen,” she shouts. At last, a word she knows.
Chhaidy was born in Theiva, a little-known village of around 150 homes in Saiha, the southern-most district of Mizoram that borders Myanmar. It is the home of Maras, a sub tribe among Mizos who were once feared headhunters.
At the age of four, Chhaidy disappeared in a nearby forest, along with a cousin of the same age, Beirakhu. Beirakhu was found five days later, beside a stream. He was in a disturbed state, but alive. Chhaidy could never be traced. But last month, at age 42, she was rediscovered.
Locals say Chhaidy was taken away by a spirit in the forest. A day after the children went missing, there was heavy rainfall, which many thought a couple of four-year-olds would never survive. When Beirakhu was found, no one could understand what he spoke. Many suspected he was possessed by a spirit, and incapable of human speech. A day later, the boy recovered and spoke of a woman who found them, a woman who lived in the forest and gave them shelter and food at her house. But when the villagers took the boy to the spot, there was no sign of any woman or house.
Ng Chhaidy, however, was still missing. News of her first sighting emerged nine days after Beirakhu was found. Two Nepali woodcutters of a nearby village claimed to have seen a young girl with shoulder-length hair walking next to a tiger. The duo, however, were so shocked by the sight, they left the village. When news spread, Chhaidy’s father, Ng Khaila, visited the spot but couldn’t find her. “I kept hearing such stories for a while, that a young girl was spotted in some part of the forest,” says the 62-year-old Khaila, “But when I would go there, she would never be around.”
After a few years, news of such sightings in Saiha stopped. The villagers did not know it then, but these sightings were now being reported in the forests of Myanmar. On one occasion, as residents of Aru village in Myanmar told Khaila, two woodcutters caught sight of a ‘wild-looking’ woman, naked, long-haired and with long fingernails. When they tried to catch her, she attacked them with her nails and teeth. She had to be caged in a wooden box, in which the woodcutters took her around to nearby villages in Myanmar, asking if she belonged to any of them. But no one knew her, and before long, she escaped into the wild again.
Some years later, she started reappearing in those villages. “Perhaps she stopped being afraid of humans,” Khaila wonders, “Perhaps she wanted to return.”
Most villagers were afraid that border troops would not take too kindly to their housing a stranger, most likely an Indian national. But when she did find a home, she would run away after a few weeks. By then, the woman had started wearing clothes. Four years ago, she was spotted in Aru’s cemetery. She was starving and ill, and covered with her own faeces. A villager took pity on her state, and provided her with shelter.
Over the next few years, Khaila met a number of villagers from Aru who were travelling through Theiva. Almost all of them remarked on how he bore a sharp resemblance to the ‘jungle girl’ they had adopted. “After a point, I could not resist my curiosity anymore. I had to see if it really was my Chhaidy. I consulted Ngola [my wife] and other villagers, and decided to try my luck,” Khaila says.
He borrowed money from local NGOs, and after selling a few aluminium sheets that he had kept in reserve while building his house, raised enough money to travel to Aru to verify the claims. Along with six other villagers, he walked on foot for three days to the other side of the border. By the end of the third night, they reached Aru. “She did not seem to recognise me at first. But I had that strange feeling that this was my long-lost daughter. When I was alone in the kitchen, I suddenly felt two strong arms around me. It was her. She was hugging me and calling me ‘Ippa’ (father in the Mara dialect),” remembers Khaila. The woman also bore two moles—on her left cheek and right thigh—that Khaila remembered his daughter had.
By the time she appeared in Aru, she already had a few possessions. Among them were two navy-blue shirts worn with buttons near the right shoulder. According to Theiva locals, these shirts appear Chinese. No community within close reach in either Myanmar or Mizoram wears such clothes, they say. This gives rise to the theory that in her many years of wandering around the forest, she might have walked right up to the Chinese border.
When Chhaidy went missing, she spoke fluent Mara. When she returned, she had a vocabulary of only two recognisable words: ‘banana’ and ‘open’. As people in Aru discovered, she refers to urine as ‘banana’ and faeces as ‘open’. She would utter them whenever she needed to use the lavatory. On trying to communicate further with her, they learnt the meanings of three other words she’d often use, none of which means the same in any known dialect or language. She refers to water as ‘nam’, anything that flies as ‘jackey’, and soup as ‘appozee’. Over the four years she lived in Aru, she picked up another two words: ‘Inna’ (mother in the Mara dialect) apart from ‘Ippa’.
Surprisingly, for someone believed to have lived in a forest away from human habitation and bereft of any social skills, Chhaidy is not shy of human interaction, although her expressions of fondness are childlike. Almost three weeks after her return, when N Solomon Beihlotha, a local from Saiha, puts his arms around her in affection, she winds her arms around his head in a tight headlock. Beihlotha is a strong young man, around five feet nine inches in height, and Chhaidy is not more than four feet ten inches, but he has to ask others to rescue him. While two locals try to pull him away, she rains punches on his stomach, and lets out a deep, bellowing laughter. The locals smile and say that Chhaidy has taken a liking to his company and is expressing her delight.
When Chhaidy sits on sofas and benches, she often squats on them. She tries to communicate with hand gestures and mutterings, even when no one understands her.
She has also picked up a number of social gestures in Aru, although they appear to lack refinement. When a local she had befriended in Aru was crying at her departure, Chhaidy surprised everyone by consoling her. This, she did by roughly rubbing her hand against the friend’s face. When she is happy, she claps. But this is accomplished by striking her palms forcefully against each other, close to her face.
Despite her general good nature, she is also given to sudden mood swings. During a ceremony held at Theiva to celebrate her return, she got upset with an organiser when he tried taking off a part of the shawl that covered her face. She expressed her disapproval by jerking her head close to the man’s hand and trying to snap her jaws at it.
Chhaidy’s is a case of what has come to be termed ‘feral children’. The phrase is used to describe children who have lived isolated from human contact since they were very young, typically as forest dwellers (if not held in captivity by people who chance upon them, as has happened in some cases). Usually, such children are found to be mentally impaired.
One of the best known cases of a feral child was that of The Wild Boy of Aveyron, who was captured in a French forest back in 1797. He was around 10 years old, but could neither walk upright nor speak. A physician tried to rehabilitate him, but without much success. Then there is the case of the Ukrainian girl Oxana Malaya, who came to be known as ‘The Dog Girl’. She was found in 1991 living with several wild dogs in a shed. She was only eight, and had lived for over five years with canines. She walked on all fours, survived on raw meat and barked like a dog. She is currently believed to be living at a home for the mentally handicapped.
In a more recent case, in July 2005, an almost seven-year-old girl in the US named Danielle Crockett (now Danielle Lierow) was rescued from her house. She had been confined in a tiny roach-infested room for years. She weighed only around 20 kg, could not speak, and was so neglected that doctors examining her termed her condition ‘environmental autism’. She now lives with foster parents, and despite undergoing rehabilitation, is still withdrawn and uncommunicative.
Chhaidy, on the other hand, has received no medical or psychological attention. She spends her days moving from home to home, playing with anyone, young or old, who seems interested. In Aru, where no mobile connectivity exists, locals would use their handsets to play music. Chhaidy has now come to understand that a phone can also be used to speak with people. She often borrows handsets from neighbours to speak into, holding lengthy conversations that make no sense. Sometimes, she has someone at the other end willing to humour her. Sometimes, she has no one.
She may be 42, but in many ways, she has only just begun to experience childhood and adolescence. She keeps her new possessions by a window. A bottle of metallic green nail polish, a plastic comb, tubes of moisturisers and fairness cream, and a maroon lipstick—all gifted by women in the village. When she wakes up every morning, she scrubs her face with cream, paints her nails—regardless of any grime underneath—and combs her long hair, which she has taken to tying with a hair band. It is only the lipstick that requires the assistance of others.
When she is in a happy mood, she turns especially sociable. Her new possessions play an active role in this too. She goes over to the houses of neighbours with her comb, for example, asking the women there to comb her hair. In return, she paints their nails.
She has also taken to performing a number of household jobs. She fetches water from a spring nearby and helps her mother cook. Apart from her vocabulary of five words (and the terms ‘Ippa’ and ‘Inna’), she has picked up a few other words as well. One recent morning, in response to a young Mara girl’s ‘Hallelujah’ whispered into her ear, Chhaidy sought out the girls’ ear to say a soft ‘Amen’. She also responds to ‘Parri’, her new nickname. In the Mara dialect, it means ‘wild flower’.
Much has changed in Theiva in the 38 years that Chhaidy was missing. The village did not have a paved road to link it with the rest of Saiha then. Mizoram was still a part of Assam. And often during heavy rainfall, the Kolodyne River, which flows to the west of the district, would swell and cut Saiha off from the rest of the state. Now, there is a bridge.
When the current road came up five years after Chhaidy went missing, the village elders decided to move the village a few kilometres away, closer to the road. A few weeks ago, on a sunny Wednesday evening, a few villagers took Chhaidy to the old village cemetery, hoping she might remember her childhood. She had gone missing from the forest close to this cemetery, after all. Today, save for the graves and stone mounds erected by villagers as memorials, there is no indication that any hamlet ever existed here. Overrun by trees and large plants, and ridden with snakes and leeches, the former village has been reclaimed by the forest. Thickets of vegetation have to be cleared with a machete—done expertly by the team leader—for the troupe to make their way around the place. Everyone else just trails the man with the machete. Chhaidy, however, seems confident of herself. She breaks into runs, her legs hurdling over the largest of plants with striking strength and dexterity.
Over two hours are spent at the spot, but Chhaidy doesn’t show signs of any recollection. On the return journey, she decides to have fun. Ordinary leaves are made into whistles, sounds that echo deep in the forest, and berries employed as bullets to shoot at others. It is as though the jungle is one big playfield for her. It suddenly starts pouring, and, along with everyone else, Chhaidy rushes home. By the time they return to the spot, the rain has stopped and a warm amber sun is sinking into a nearby hill. Chhaidy runs towards it, waving her hands in glee.
From a distance, all one sees is the silhouette of an overjoyed woman. And all one hears are gentle grunts in a language no one understands.